By Elizabeth Harvey
In the midst of social distancing requirements and a time of grief and anxiety across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some have experienced a loss that compounds these difficulties: the death of an animal companion. I hope that readers who are missing a special animal during this time will feel a little less alone through having their experience recognized. This article will touch on the grief process, offer tips for self-care after loss, and provide a list of resources for support.
For many of us, our animal companions are a crucial source of comfort and companionship. We consider them family. The emotional toll of losing a pet during the health crisis our society has been experiencing should not be underestimated. We are already dealing with unsettling news daily, and for some, personal experiences of multiple types of losses, including human deaths and losses of health, financial stability, and social life. My 8-year-old son recently described the chain of events related to COVID-19 as a “tragic kaboom” and that seems apt.
It makes sense that losing a pet while navigating the current state of the world could amplify feelings of overwhelm. The coronavirus situation raises a variety of new challenges with regard to pet loss. Changes to processes at veterinary offices may disrupt what we were expecting in terms of caring for our pets in their last days and saying goodbye. We may be tempted to compare our loss of a pet to what others are experiencing or minimize the validity of our grief when so much other loss is going on around us, intensifying feelings of isolation. Typical in-person social activities and support systems may be harder to access during the health crisis and perhaps longer term for those in high-risk health circumstances, but it may feel challenging to look for new sources of support. If you are struggling, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself and to reach out for support – there are resources available and caring people who are willing to help. The tips and resources below provide a place to start.
Honoring the Grief Process, Honoring Your Pet
There is no “one-size fits all” prescription for coping with grief. Loss hits us each differently, and coping approaches that help will not look the same for everyone. This also goes for the timing of grief: there is no one timetable for processing the loss of a pet, despite messages we may receive from others about “moving on.” Grief is a reflection of love, and as Dr. Joanne Cacciatore says in Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, “grief and love mirror each other; one is not possible without the other.”1
Honoring the grief process is a way of continuing to love your pet. Self-compassion is key: gradually allow yourself to feel your feelings of loss as it is tolerable; this may take more time than expected. Letting go of preconceived notions of what the grief process will be reduces pressure and allows space for healing. Integrating an understanding of your relationship with your pet and what they have meant to you may unfold over a lifetime and become an ongoing dialogue with your pet in a psychological or spiritual sense.2 This idea of developing a continuing bond3 after losing a pet may not lessen the raw hurt of immediate loss. Instead, over time, we can try to gradually shift our connection with a pet from how we interacted while they were living to a different place in our heart and mind. In this way, we can move towards wholeness to include the meaning of our pet in our life rather than closing off or ignoring the parts of us touched by our pet because the loss is too painful to face.
Finding a way to memorialize a pet may help as a touchstone during the grief process and can help start the process of relating to our pet in a new way. Some veterinary offices will make a clay pawprint of a pet in the euthanasia process. Some people display a photo they hold dear of their pet or have a pet portrait painted in the honor of the lost animal companion. Collars, leashes, bowls or other objects your pet used provide a tangible way to connect with memories of your pet. A simple memorial service that is meaningful to you may feel right. At some point remembering may mean activities such as taking walks where you once walked with your pet or becoming involved in animal rescue efforts in honor of your pet. It is a very personal choice as to what is comforting and meaningful, and the ways you remember your pet may evolve with time. A personal example is that in a painting class years ago, I chose to paint from a photograph of my dog Fred. The painting became a special reminder of Fred after his death. Creative efforts to remember our pets need not look “just right” to anyone else, but can have great meaning to us.
Practical Self-Care After Loss
Experiencing the fluidity of grief, which can come in intense waves, during an unsettling time such as the COVID-19 situation means that consistency and routine can be crucial sources of stability, comfort, and grounding. Practical self-care is important for dealing with times of uncertainty and even more important when we have experienced a personal loss. The following tips are meant as a gentle reminder of habits that can support health and healing.
• Sleep. Good sleep hygiene can make a difference to our ability to function. This means going to bed at a consistent time each night, making sure sleep conditions are conducive (such as adequate darkness and removing distractions), and getting sufficient hours of uninterrupted sleep. Identify substances that may be interfering with sleep quality such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol and seek support to manage the effects if needed.
• Eating nourishing foods. Eating a balanced diet and drinking plenty of water supports your health. Loss of appetite and overeating can both occur during the grief experience. Seek help from a professional if you feel either of these have become unmanageable.
• Exercise. If you have a typical exercise routine, keep it up as best you can. If not, start with simple efforts such as walking, at-home exercises using your own body weight, stretches, or yoga as your health and fitness level safely allow.
• Time outdoors. Exposure to the natural world can help regulate our nervous system. Sitting on the earth in a peaceful setting can feel grounding. Noticing natural phenomena such as the seasons can support our becoming more in-sync with cycles of change, life and death and new life again.
Pick one or two items that are most helpful to you and try to do them each day. Aim to gradually increase the healthful activities you are implementing to support your wellbeing. Caring for yourself intentionally even in small ways can make a difference as you move through this difficult time.
Pet Loss Support Resources
In the time of coronavirus, social outlets and normal activities that could offer relief in a time of loss may not be an option. Feeling isolated can be a key experience of grief. Seeking support through whatever means is available and feels most helpful to you, whether it is online or by phone during this time of social distancing, can help uncover new sources of connection and comfort. Reaching out to friends who are also animal lovers, joining likeminded communities on social media, or finding a topical online support group or chatroom you feel comfortable with can offer a path to hope when loss feels so heavy. Though this list is not comprehensive, the following organizations provide resources tailored for those experiencing pet loss:
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (aplb.org) offers pet bereavement chat rooms and many resources for pet loss and anticipatory bereavement on their website, as well as resources for memorializing pets.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org) offers a list of hotlines for pet loss support and services within their article on euthanasia: https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/euthanasia.
A group of human-animal interaction experts have compiled a list of resources related to pet issues during COVID-19 through the non-profit Fido Fort Collins (https://fidofortcollins.org/covid-19-pets/). This includes a list of the following online forums and support groups for pet loss:
Mental Health Resources
Seeking the support of a mental health counselor during this time may also be helpful for processing the hard emotions of bereavement and finding practical ways to cope. Some counselors specialize in working with clients who have lost pets and describe ourselves as “pet-friendly” or with a special interest in animal companion issues. During times of social distancing, many therapy providers offer sessions through telemedicine by video or phone. If your community does not have a counselor who specializes in pet loss, there may be someone else within the state who can help via telehealth counseling. It may take speaking with more than one therapist to find someone whose approach is right for you, so please do not give up in seeking support. Following is a list of resources to help with finding a mental health professional. In addition, insurance companies frequently provide a listing of providers covered under their plans.
Online therapist directories: psychologytoday.com or goodtherapy.org
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement listing of pet bereavement counselors by state: https://www.aplb.org/support/counselor/.
The MISS Foundation offers a directory of counselors trained in Compassionate Bereavement Care: https://missfoundation.org/compassionate-bereavement-care
Crisis resources: If you are in crisis, please call the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line at 855-NMCRISIS (662-7474) where counselors are available 24/7. Mental health and COVID-19 resources are available at nmcrisisline.com. If you are facing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.
If you have recently lost a pet, know that others are walking that hard path as well and that support is available. I wish you peace and health in these difficult times and a lifetime of love for your animal companions.
Elizabeth Harvey is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor practicing in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her practice is focused on grief, including animal companion loss, and supporting clients working in fields related to animals. She is also an independent researcher and writer on human-animal interaction. www.elizabethharveycounseling.com
Cacciatore, J., & Rubin, J. (2017). Bearing the unbearable: Love, loss, and the heartbreaking path of grief. Simon and Schuster.
Blazina, C., & Abrams, E.H. (2018). Working with men and their dogs: How context informs clinical practice when the bond is present in males’ lives. In Kogan, L. and Blazina, C. (Eds). Clinician’s Guide to Treating Animal Companion Issues. San Diego: Elsevier.
Silverman, P. R., Klass, D., & Nickman, S. L. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Taylor & Francis.